Following Michelle Wu’s election as the mayor of Boston in early November, a bold policy proposal that would have been considered impossible a few years ago is finally on the agenda—making public transportation free in the City of Boston. Wu spearheaded the idea of a fare-free MBTA back in early 2019 with an ambitious op-ed in The Boston Globe, and was met with a hostile response from the powerful figures of Beacon Hill, who derided the idea as “fanciful.” Now, as mayor, Wu has a real chance to enact this policy and make Boston a greener and more equitable city.
Americans spend more than 15 percent of their budget each month on transportation costs, with families shelling out an average of 17.1 percent of their budget on transportation. Additionally, people are increasingly reliant on public transportation—since 1997, public transportation ridership has increased by more than 20 percent. Those who are reliant on public transportation for mobility are often low-income, as evidenced by the city of Lawrence, Mass., where 90 percent of riders make less than $20,000 a year. All of these facts make the increasing costs of riding public transportation a major concern for quality of life and social mobility in American cities and towns.
Transportation should be free like the public goods in our society, such as public schools, firefighters, and parks. Access to public transportation allows riders to get to work, continue their education, go to the doctor, and get to stores to shop and boost the local and national economy. When people have access to mobility, their quality of life improves, and the social benefits to the community as a whole are tangible. Being able to travel on the bus or train to get to a good paying job has the potential to change the trajectory of an entire family’s life. Though the $2.40 to ride the T seems like a small fee, if someone rides the T to and from work five days a week, the price tag adds up to about $1,200 a year. For a family on a tight budget, that cost can be a major barrier to mobility. Making public transportation free could help to alleviate some of that pressure and allow for low-income people to get to work or school and achieve upward mobility.
The environmental benefits to fare-free transportation are also a convincing reason to take a second look at this bold policy proposal. Boston has the worst rush hour traffic in the country which congests the city with traffic and lengthens commute times. If the T were free and therefore more accessible, there is a real possibility that there would be fewer cars on the road. This takes the pressure off congested city streets and highways, and also helps to cut emissions and pollution from too many cars on the road. According to the Carbon Free Boston report, drastically reducing the number of cars on the road is key to the city’s ability to meet its emissions goals. Other cities have proven that a fare-free transportation system increases ridership—in Olympia, Wash., 60,000 more people utilized public transportation, and in Lawrence, Mass., ridership has seen a 24-percent increase since the elimination of fares. In Boston, the fare-free Silver Line has helped reduce congestion around Logan Airport since 2012. These policies empirically work to get more people to utilize public transportation.
The most common objection to a fare-free system is that it eliminates a source of funding for public transportation, raising the question of who is going to pay for it. IT is also expensive to upkeep a fare collection system, however, as the city has to pay to purchase and maintain the machines to pay for tickets and collect fares, and people have to be hired to sort through the cash collected as fares. Collecting fares is also inefficient in that it slows down boarding times—I think back to all the times I have been stuck at a T stop because there is a line of passengers waiting to board, digging around in their bags for cash. Additionally, the public transportation budget is composed mainly of state, local, and federal funds, with fares making up only a small portion of the funding. In Boston, only 20 percent of the MBTA budget comes from fares, and it is very doable to make up the difference from other sources. Some have proposed making up the difference by instituting a two-cent raise in the gas tax, which could have the added benefit of dissuading people from using their cars as frequently.
Even if the gas tax proposal is not enacted, it would be a worthwhile investment to disperse the tax burden to all of us. Doing away with fares on the T would benefit the City of Boston as a whole—by reducing congestion and pollution, increasing access to education and good jobs, removing a barrier to escaping poverty, and allowing people to patronize local businesses. Everyone would win.
Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab/ Heights Editor